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Joanna Lumley's charming Silk Road adventures

Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure, Sunday.

The charmingly irrepressible Joanna Lumley makes a tour of the Silk Road cities seem fresh and exciting.

“Won’t you come with me on my Silk Road adventure?” asks Joanna Lumley. Yes, Joanna, yes, we will. We would follow you anywhere.

The most charming travel companion in the history of the world is back with another fascinating journey. We say fascinating, because she makes it so. Plenty of presenters, historians, adventurers and travellers have been there before her, but none of them look so fetching in a panama hat.

In Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure (Prime, Sunday, 8.30pm), she is wearing that hat on a canal boat in Venice, the city that was the recipient of so much trading wealth brought via the Silk Road. “Everything came to Venice, it was revelling in everything new, it grabbed all the new ideas.”

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Over the four episodes, Lumley will travel more than 11,000km, from Venice to China, covering Albania, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Silk first came to Venice in the 13th century, brought, they say, by Marco Polo. Once, there were 30,000 silk workers in the city, but these days, only the very wealthy can afford it. Real Venetian silk brocade is now worth €5000 (NZ$8250) a metre and there is only one business in Venice still making it by hand.

Lumley is shown the centuries-old looms at Tessitura Luigi Bevilacqua, the family business that has been involved in the silk trade for 500 years, but is not allowed to have a go. It takes years of training, she is told. “Gee whiz, respect!”

In the gift shop, a small handmade handbag will set you back €1500 (NZ$2470).

It’s not only silk, of course. Cotton, glass, spices, flowers, medicines, horses, philosophy and architecture arrived in Venice via the Silk Road, as well as an unwelcome visitor: bubonic plague.

Next stop, Albania and the Roman road that went all the way to Istanbul. There’s not much of it left, but a walk with an Albanian historian that includes a glass of wine on an Ottoman bridge is rather spectacular.

Istanbul also gets the Lumley treatment: “For 2000 years, this city has been throbbing with life.” She meets one of Turkey’s richest women and is shown around her outrageous mansion.

But we gather that not all the journey is quite so exquisite. “Occasionally, some of the lavatories were a challenge,” she told the Daily Record. “Holes in the ground, where the aim has not been good. I’d rather just go straight behind a bush.”

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.